A global ethic

A global ethic


In one sense, a search for a universal ethical ground is an unfashionable approach – the principal valuable achievement of several decades of post-modernism and subaltern thought has been to profoundly delegitimate the hitherto often unquestioned equation of the European project of science and modernity with unilinear progress towards a universal future.  While there are many deeply controversial and undesirable aspects to the influence of post-modernist thought, at the very least it has provided a tool for the critique of the blindness and brutality of much of the “modernist” project. It has in particular alerted us to the dangers of – for those of us in the advantaged parts of the world – false universalisms.

That said, however, there are renewed attempts, on a more modest basis, to look for at least minimal elements of moral universality, values about which all can agree. In certain respects, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that underpins the United Nations Charter is one such attempt. But whatever its very considerable achievements, its appeal is limited. Not only is it a instrument of statecraft and law, but it was very much an expression of the legal and philosophical systems of the principal victors of the Second World War (i.e. not China). While virtually every country in the world at least formally subscribes to it as the criterion of membership of the UN, there is both a wide gap in many signatory countries between ideal and reality, and a complete separation between the formal legal western language of the Declaration and the systems of thought of ordinary people in many different cultures. Originating in western thought in triumphalist mode, its is an agreement amongst states, not peoples, and while it has a certain degree of legal potency, it is doubtful whether it is of great utility as a moral unifier. it would be difficult to claim that it claims substantial allegiance amongst any of the peoples of the world’s nations.

One different approach has been taken amongst the more ecumenically minded of more than forty of the world’s great established religions. In 1993 the Parliament of the World’s Religions accepted a draft by the German Catholic theologian Hans Kung as the basis of its document entitled Towards a Global Ethic: An Initial Declaration.

Kung and his colleagues were searching for a “fundamental consensus concerning binding values, irrevocable standards, and personal attitudes”  amongst their co-religionists, who came from all major faiths. Differences were to be acknowledged: this was not to be an exercise in “ethical minimalism”. rather it was intended to represent “the minimum of what the world already has in common now in the ethical sphere”. It was conceived, not coercively, but as an invitation to “all, believers and non-believers, to make this ethic their own and act in accordance with it.”



Declaration Toward a Global Ethic, Parliament of the World’s Religions, 4 September 1993.

The world is in agony. The agony is so pervasive and urgent that we are compelled to name its manifestations so that the depth of this pain may be made clear. Peace eludes us – the planet is being destroyed – neighbors live in fear – women and men are estranged from each other – children die!

This is abhorrent.

But this agony need not be. It need not be because the basis for an ethic already exists. This ethic offers the possibility of a better individual and global order, and leads individuals away from despair and societies away from chaos.

We condemn these blights and declare that they need not be. An ethic already exists within the religious teachings of the world which can counter the global distress. Of course this ethic provides no direct solution for all the immense problems of the world, but it does supply the moral foundation for a better individual and global order: A vision which can lead women and men away from despair, and society away from chaos.

We confirm that there is already a consensus among the religions which can be the basis for a global ethic – a minimal fundamental consensus concerning binding values, irrevocable standards, and fundamental moral attitudes.

By a global ethic we do not mean a global ideology or a single unified religion beyond
all existing religions, and certainly not the domination of one religion over all others.
By a global ethic we mean a fundamental consensus on binding values, irrevocable
standards, and personal attitudes. Without such a fundamental consensus on
an ethic, sooner or later every community will be threatened by chaos or dictatorship,
and individuals will despair.

There is a principle which is found and has persisted in many religious and ethical
traditions of humankind for thousands of years: What you do not wish done to yourself,
do not do to others. Or in positive terms: What you wish done to yourself, do
to others! This should be the irrevocable, unconditional norm for all areas of life, for
families and communities, for races, nations, and religions.

This principle implies very concrete standards to which we humans should hold
firm. From it arise four broad, ancient guidelines for human behavior which are
found in most of the religions of the world.

  • Commitment to a culture of non-violence and respect for life
  • Commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order
  • Commitment to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness
  • Commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women.

We commit ourselves to this global ethic, to understanding one another, and to socially-beneficial, peace-fostering, and nature-friendly ways of life. We invite all men and women, whether religious or not, to do the same.


Hans Kung and a global ethic

The Globalization of Ethics, Hans Küng, Policy Innovations, 13 December 2007

A Global Ethic: Development and Goals, Hans Kung, Interreligious Insight , January, 2003

Response to Hans Kung’s Remarks on Global Ethic and Human Responsibilities, Kathleen Mahoney, 1 April 2005.

I think that it is very important to start this discussion from a baseline of understanding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights-its purposes, its standards, and its limitations-before taking on this other debate on the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities.

I do agree with the presentations that we have heard thus far in the conference, that ethics are very important; nobody would deny that. So are responsibilities; they are critically important. The issues that need to be discussed in putting together such a code—and they have to be hit head on—is first of all, what needs of the community should be able to take precedence over individual rights. Secondly, how should the competing claims be reconciled? In what framework should competing claims be reconciled—with the state, with the community and with other individuals? Should they be reconciled on the basis of shared values or interests or something else? Thirdly, how do existing human rights instruments deal with responsibilities? Is a further instrument going to complement the current instruments, and how so? And how would assurances be made that an additional legal instrument could not be used to undermine this journey of the past 60 years of trying to articulate and put into place the rights and freedoms that have been, to some large extent, universally felt to be those the human condition requires in order to achieve peace and stability?

Peter Singer


Martha Nussbaum


Kwame Anthony Appiah


Will Kymlicka

The Globalization of Ethics: Religious and Secular Perspectives, William M. Sullivan and Will Kymlicka (eds.), Cambridge University Press.

Will Kymlicka, “Introduction: The Globalization of Ethics”

Daniel Philpott, “Global Ethics and the International Law Tradition”

Michael Walzer, “Morality and Universality in Jewish Thought”

Max Stackhouse, “Globalization and Christian Ethics”

Peter Nosco, “Buddhism and the Globalization of Ethics”

Muhammad Khalid Masud, “Muslim Perspectives on Global Ethics”

Richard Madsen, “Confucianism: Ethical Uniformity and Diversity”

Mark Murphy, “Natural Law, Common Morality, and Particularism”

Chris Brown, “Liberalism and the Globalization of Ethics”

Kimberly Hutchings, “Feminist Perspectives on a Planetary Ethic”

William Sullivan, “Ethical Universalism and Particularism: A Comparison of Outlooks”

  Project coordinator: Richard Tanter
19 May 2008